In my perfect world, if you live to be 99, you automatically get a free pass to 100.
Well, it’s not my world and it’s certainly not perfect, and twice in the last five weeks, in the sports world, that hasn’t been the case. Now it’s two men who personified excellence but didn’t get to cross into the promised land called Centenary.
This morning, I woke up to learn that Bob Sheppard, born six days after Wooden — the man whose clipped, precise diction was the platinum standard for public-address announcers, and whose exact, classy tones were part of the Yankee Stadium experience for 56 years — departed this morning from his Baldwin, L.I., home without seeing triple figures, either.
Life is not fair sometimes. But I have a feeling Mr. Sheppard would be the first to rebut me and say that he did have an excellent life.
Mr. Sheppard did not cure cancer, he did not solve any economic crises, he did not extricate our country from unnecessary wars. He really didn’t do anything that changed my life personally. He was, at his essence, a high school (John Adams High, Queens) and college (St. John’s University) speech teacher and a devout Catholic who taught students to speak eloquently and gave priests a clue on how to give an effective sermon. (Guess there’s a reason why Reggie Jackson called him “The Voice of God” that goes beyond his authoritarian tones.)
But he became famous for doing his auxiliary job with the highest standard of excellence and maintaining that excellence for decades. Just by living his life and working his craft to lofty standards, the onetime St. John’s quarterback got to relish a sports fan’s ultimate dream. He was hired to be the public-address announcer for several teams: the All-America Football Conference’s Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Yankees, the New York Jets when they were still the Titans, the St. John’s men’s basketball team, Army football, soccer’s New York Cosmos and the World Football League’s New York Stars.
But of course, it was his association with the baseball Yankees — which officially started April 18, 1951, with their home opener against the Red Sox, in Mickey Mantle’s first season and Joe DiMaggio’s last — for which he’s been immortalized, as well as his lengthy stint with the football Giants, starting with their first Yankee Stadium home game in 1956 and continuing through 2005 at the Meadowlands.
His unique talent made him the voice of generations of sports fans in one of the world’s most famous forums. He got to see all sorts of sports history from one of the best seats in the house — 22 of the Yanks’ 40 American League championships and 13 of their 27 world titles; the perfect games by Don Larsen, David Wells and David Cone; the Giants’ 1956 NFL title win over the Bears; football’s “Greatest Game Ever Played,” the 1958 Colts-Giants NFL title game; Roger Maris’ 61st homer; Reggie’s three homers in the clinching Series game in 1977; the game after Thurman Munson’s death (my first game at Yankee Stadium). In turn, he became an indelible part of the experience of being a Yankee fan.
But all he did day in, day out was elucidate clearly into a microphone. His manner was plain and simple: proper diction and pronunciation, an even tone and a strict avoidance of hyperbole.
Mr. Sheppard preferred the challenge of pronunciation, of getting difficult names correct consistently. Mickey Mantle, he often said, was his favorite name to pronounce, perhaps a combination of their friendship, Mick’s greatness and the simple, poetic alliteration of the name. But his other favorite names were Shigetoshi Hasegawa, Salome Barojas, Jose Valdivielso and Alvaro Espinoza. As he once explained, “Anglo-Saxon names are not very euphonious. What can I do with Steve Sax? What can I do with Mickey Klutts?”
As fond as he was of many Yankees (Mantle topped his list and Derek Jeter came close), Mr. Sheppard could never be accused of being a cheerleader. (After all, he did see a few stretches of lousy Yankees and Giants teams in his time, too.) The emergence of screaming cheerleader/shill PA announcers in the 1980s, most notably in the NBA, appalled me. I would often think, “What would Bob Sheppard think?” knowing full well what the answer would be.
In his dignified way, he once explained, in a quote that was recycled for his Associated Press obituary, “A P.A. announcer is not a cheerleader, or a circus barker, or a hometown screecher. He’s a reporter.”
In my college years, as a work-study student at the C.W. Post Campus of Long Island University, I got to see another consummate pro who I assume — and I didn’t have the presence of mind or history at the time to ask him — was greatly influenced by Mr. Sheppard.
Rich Kahn, the school’s assistant director of public relations at the time and my direct boss, was also the PA announcer for the school’s football team at the time. After I would finish selling programs in the stands for pocket money on Saturday afternoons, I would go back to the booth and watch silently as he relayed the action on the field to the smattering of fans who cared to show up. After I graduated, he went on to become the longtime PA announcer for the Jets and New York Islanders, and is now the voice of Philadelphia’s Palestra.
Rich was a lifelong Mets fan, it should be noted, and his tone was smoother and slightly less formal than Mr. Sheppard’s, but what I learned from him behind a mic was some of what I think we both took away from years of listening to the legend: an emphasis on correct pronunciation and a clear avoidance of hype.
Mr. Sheppard only missed, if I’m correct, two Yankee games from 1951 to 2005, and one of them was the day off the team gave him in 2000 for Bob Sheppard Day. His last game behind the mic was Yankees vs. Mariners, Sept. 5, 2007, after which he was sidelined by a bronchial infection. He didn’t feel strong enough to return in 2008, and that included the original Stadium finale, Sept. 21, 2008, but he did record the Yankees’ starting lineup to be announced one final time. And I guess it’s fitting that he left his history behind at the old place.
If there’s a lasting testament to his excellence, it comes from a player with pretty high standards himself. His voice will live on as long as Jeter is playing. The captain felt it strange to not have Mr. Sheppard announce his at-bats, so he had him record an introduction, so that he and the fans will always hear Bob Sheppard say “Derek … Jetuhhhhhh!”
As I said, Mr. Sheppard did not have a major impact on my life. Public-address announcers aren’t supposed to, unless they’re guiding you from a life-or-death situation. But as someone who grew up with the Yankees, I’d be remiss if I didn’t note his passing. Or at least acknowledge a private man who approached his public work with dignity, class and exacting standards. I wouldn’t mind having him at the gate, announcing my first at-bat in the afterlife someday.